Regional Meeting in New York City: Part II

On Saturday, November 16, 2002 the Ephemera Society scheduled a regional meeting in New York City to visit the archives and museum at Carnegie Hall. An extra added bonus was a morning stop at the Grolier Club to see an exhibition curated by society member William H. Helfand entitled "Quack, Quack, Quack: the Sellers of Nostrums in Prints, Posters, Ephemera and Books."

The Grolier Club, located at 47 East 60th Street, originated in 1884 when a group of bibliophiles met at the home of printing press manufacturer and book collector Robert Hoe to discuss beginning an organization devoted to the book arts. Everyone agreed that the printing arts and typography of their day were in need of reform and admired earlier production very much. Named after French bibliophile Jean Grolier (1489/90-1565), the club has grown over time to include over 700 members devoted to the literary study and promotion of the arts pertaining to the production of books.

Among the club's activities are an active changing exhibitions program that features four shows per year (to date a total of about 600 exhibitions have been done), the maintenance of a library, lectures, symposiums, and publications, including modern editions of classics and exhibition catalogs. The Grolier Club's informative and educational web site is at http://www.grolierclub.org. Membership is by nomination, and recommendations for membership are made on the basis of a candidate's passion for books as revealed in his or her activities as a collector, scholar, librarian, printer, or participation in some other bookish pursuit.

"Quack, Quack, Quack" was on display from September 18-November 23. It showcased "the often flamboyant sellers of nostrums and patent medicines over the course of four centuries through visual, and often entertaining, material," as its promotional brochure pointed out.

Divided into ten sections, ranging from the ways of itinerant quacks to the frequent rivalry among sellers of panaceas, from extravagant marketing techniques to the first governmental restrictions placed on the more flagrant abuses and abusers, the show included 185 items all drawn from the collection of Bill Helfand, who has written, lectured and exhibited extensively on the history of drugs and pharmacae and on prints, caricatures, posters, and ephemera.

Over time the quack has been both a popular and profitable subject for American and European artists and writers, including William Hogarth, Honoré Daumier, Maxfield Parrish, Jules Chéret and H.G. Wells, all of whom are represented in the exhibition. At the same time, some of the most graphic and spirited work has been created by unknown and lesser-known individuals. A Dutch engraving, "Hyacum et Lues Venera," showing a 16th century cure for syphilis; a twelve-scene wood engraving called "Medical Confessions of Medical Murder," which uses a quotation from Shakespeare to help market pills for sale by quack James Morison; "The Health Jolting Chair," a color lithograph of a seated woman showing the promised "most highly prized Feminine Attractions" thanks to the wonders of electricity; and a British cartoon, "The Traveling Quack," are all highlighted.

Society members in attendance at the Grolier Club were treated to a special walkthrough of the exhibit by Bill Helfand. Spending time in front of each case and wall display, Bill spoke about the importance of many of the items shown and talked about how he had acquired them, adding information to his already edifying exhibition labels.

Attesting to the importance of the exhibit, the British ephemera society, in its quarterly newsletter, The Ephemerist, devoted its cover story to the show, including five of its most compelling illustrations.

A symposium and catalog accompanied the exhibition. Held on October 9, the symposium featured five speakers covering such topics as the history of American and French quackery, medical advertising in almanacs, anatomical museums, and booksellers, circulating libraries, and proprietary medicines. The catalog, a 256-page hardcover book that shares the name of the exhibition, is still available from the Grolier Club for $40.00. It contains nearly 200 illustrations, many in color, and wonderfully descriptive text. In addition, an abbreviated version of "Quack, Quack, Quack" is available via the Grolier Club's Web site.

E. Richard McKinstry
Past President

[This article originally appeared in the Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art.]

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